Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Notes on Thunderbolt Fantasy


I don’t look forward to much coming out of Hollywood these days. I’m not, for example, looking forward to Amazon’s upcoming take on The Lord of the Rings; nor am I interested in Netflix’s reboot of Cowboy Bebop. One thing that I am looking forward to, and it’s something that’s definitely not coming out of Hollywood, is the third season of Thunderbolt Fantasy.

Thunderbolt Fantasy is a fantasy adventure drama in the spirit of Chinese Xianxia. The show, which uses glove puppets, is the result of a joint venture between the Japanese companies Nitroplus and Good Smile Company, and the Taiwanese puppet production company Phili International Multimedia.

When Season One first came out, I watched the first few minutes the first episode, then turned it off, as I wasn’t keen on the use of puppets. But I kept reading glowing reviews of the show online, so I gave it a second chance. And I was blown away by how good it was, particularly the writing. The show’s creator and writer, Gen Urobuchi, has written a number of anime, including Fate/Zero, Psycho-Pass, and Aldnoah.Zero. I’m not that familiar with Urobuchi’s anime work, but he definitely caught lightning in a bottle when he wrote Thunderbolt Fantasy.

The third season of Thunderbolt Fantasy is scheduled to air in Japan on April 3rd. Although the first two seasons are playing on Chrunchyroll, they have yet to list the third season on their Spring 2021 lineup. If you haven’t seen Thunderbolt Fantasy and are a fan of Wuxia and Xianxia, now would be a good time to check out Seasons One and Two.

I recommend the show to writers, as the writing is that good. Season Two is much better than Season One. Sometime I hope to write a detailed analysis of Season Two, but in the interim, here are some brief notes I jotted down for both seasons:

  • Season Two is much different than Season One. The Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño once observed that if you’re a short story writer, you might inadvertently write the same story over and over again. That’s a potential pitfall with sequels. Season Two is very much a different story than Season One, in spite of some commonalities in the underlying structures.
  • A split MacGuffin. In many stories, one side has the MacGuffin and the other side is trying to retrieve it. If the heroes have the MacGuffin, they are on the run, fleeing from a more powerful antagonist. If the villain has the MacGuffin, he simply sulks in his lair, waiting for the hero to come and find him. This structure allows for one side to be passive. In Thunderbolt Fantasy, Gen Urobuchi splits the MacGuffin, forcing both sides to play both offense and defense, making for a much more dynamic story. The split MacGuffin’s impact on the story is felt more prominently in Season Two.
  • Multiple Antagonists. Most stories have a simple, binary  “A vs. B” structure. The Hero vs. the Villain. Team Good Guys vs. Team Bad Guys. Just like when you watch a football or a basketball game. But imagine that, while you’re at that football game, a third team steps out onto the playing field. Both seasons of Thunderbolt Fantasy have multiple antagonists with different agendas, and this makes the plot much more complex and interesting. This also gives the series’ writer flexibility to take the story in different, unexpected directions.   
  • Strong Antagonists. In both seasons, the protagonists face opponents who are highly capable, skilled, and intelligent. Sure, this show has its share of hapless henchmen on both sides who flail around and get cut down by the bushel. In Hollywood action flicks, the hapless henchmen are often the main event, but here, like in the best Wuxia, they are only a sideshow. The main villains are tough, challenging opponents.
  • The use of Reversal. Reversal is one of the best ways to generate suspense across the length of a story, but many writers fail to take advantage of it. When writers do use the technique, they often insert a reversal at the beginning of the story, but none occur after that.  In both seasons of Thunderbolt Fantasy, the protagonists or characters associated with them suffer reversals, and reversals continue into the later sections of the story. (I discuss the topic of reversal in my essay on suspense in the book Pulp on Pulp.)
  • Fight Scenes. In Season Two, almost every fight scene has the following characteristics: 1) at least one of the combatants employs a deception or some other clever tactic, and 2) there is at least one surprise. Ironically, one of the weaker fight scenes in Season Two is the climax. In hindsight, it becomes apparent that Gen Urobuchi played some cards earlier in the story that he should have reserved for the big, climatic battle. 
  • The Mystery Box. J.J. Abrams gave the mystery box a bad name, but that’s because J.J. is an incompetent writer. Mystery, if properly executed, can add a great deal to the story. The key is that when the consumer finally opens the box, he’s satisfied with what he finds. In Thunderbolt Fantasy, some of the mystery centers around world-building, but much of it centers around the characters. Multiple characters have hidden agendas that are revealed later on, usually in the form of dramatic surprises. Mysteries surrounding the central protagonist hinted at in Season One are revealed in Season Two.
  • Dialogue. Season One is dialogue heavy. There's a lot of exposition, as the characters introduce themselves and their world to the viewer. Normally this would be a red flag, especially in an adventure story in a visual medium, but it didn't bother me. The dialogue is laced with enough humor and conflict, as well as hints to hidden secrets, to keep things interesting.
  • The Moral Framework. This isn’t something that most people pay attention to but, given the current state of storytelling, it’s something that deserves closer scrutiny. This series has some morally grey characters and, in Season Two, corrupt individuals in positions of authority. In the hands of a Postmodern Western author, this could easily degenerate into grimdark, nihilism, or moral relativism. But Thunderbolt Fantasy has a strong sense of moral clarity. There is no muddying of the waters of what is right and wrong, no blurring of the line between good and evil, and that’s one of the many things I like about this show.

As I stated earlier, Gen Urobuchi caught lightning in a bottle when he wrote Thunderbolt Fantasy. Here’s hoping he can keep it up in Season Three.

If you’re an author, you might be interested in my essays on narrative tools and patterns in the book Pulp on Pulp, edited by Kit Sun Cheah and Misha Burnett. It’s available on Amazon for 99 cents and is free on other platforms.

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